Crossing the Sea of Suffering

I began practicing Buddhism in 1988 in Johannesburg, South Africa. I was studying at University of the Witwatersrand, working part time to help pay for my fees, but, due to heavy work commitments, I failed my second year — twice. This left me with one more chance to prove myself. 

A year prior, my friend Brett left South Africa to "start a new life" in Australia, in part also to avoid serving in the then Apartheid South African Defense Force. We had often gone to church together, and although we were far from model Christians, we did share thoughts on spirituality and religion. 

But Brett didn't find that new life, after all. A year later, my friend committed suicide, substantially depressed at trying to adjust to a new society. In truth, his depression also manifested itself while living in South Africa, and he often talked about suicide as a way to end his suffering. His belief was spurred by the Christian ideology of Heaven or the ideal place hereafter. 

After battling drug addiction, failing at school, and not finding happiness in Australia, I think Brett finally decided he was a failure and to end his life. He often said, "Why must I suffer when I can just die and go to Heaven?" So in June 1988, he jumped off a cliff. 

Christians tell me the Bible doesn't see suicide as a solution to unhappiness. But in Brett's case, he sacrificed his life on earth for the dream of a happier one in Heaven. 

His death made me question my beliefs. Brett’s parents, who were strong Christians, seemed so concerned with their own faith and with counseling others that their children suffered from lack of love and attention. 

It was at Brett's funeral that I decided not to be a Christian any longer. I was horrified by the minister, who, I felt, was preaching even while he laughed and joked about the promise of salvation. I was incensed by his insensitivity and the concept of Christian guilt. At that moment, I turned my back on my former religion, having no idea where I would go from there. 

A month later, I was introduced by an enthusiastic friend to someone who was into "some sort of spirituality." As this woman and I talked, I felt an agreement in our perceptions of spirituality. The woman, Celeste, invited me to a "friendship day" seven weeks hence, so I could find out more about this "spirituality." When the day finally came, I was hesitant about going, but to keep from disappointing Celeste, I agreed to attend. 

I must have cycled 20 kilometers to get to the house, and was surprised to find out the event would last all day, not just a few hours. Nonetheless, I decided to stay, and thus was introduced to True Buddhism. Everything seemed to make complete sense! 

I was also impressed with how giving these Buddhists were: free food, a comfortable atmosphere, no preaching or guilt when I was distracted. I deeply enjoyed, too, all of the experiences I heard and read that day. 

After a wonderful day, I was asked if I would like to hear the chanting. As the leader rang the bell and everyone began to chant, I felt myself connecting with my friend, Brett! I decided that Nam Myoho-renge-kyo might work for me, and I started chanting that day. In the days that followed, I remember phoning Celeste over and over, asking her, "How do you say it again?" Once I got the rhythm, I would hang up and try chanting alone until I lost the beat. Then I would call Celeste back and ask her to go through with it with me one more time. 

It wasn't long before I found the perfect test to try out this new chant. There was a dog in my neighborhood that went absolutely berserk every day when I walked by. This had happened for three months without fail — if I ran, if I walked, if I walked on the other side of the road, if I hurled abuse at it, if I ignored it completely — the reaction was exactly the same. I decided to chant and see what happened. 

As I approached the house where the dog lived, I started chanting quietly under my breath. Then I walked in front of the house, and there was the dog. But something was different — now it just lay quietly, head on paws, and looked at me. Nothing else. I was mystified — it was simply unbelievable! And from then on, that dog never barked at me again — not ever. 

I found plenty of other things to chant about, too. My landlord gave me three days to move after an argument, and I prayed for a miracle, willing to accept almost anything. The results were amazing! In less than two hours of chanting in my head while walking around the area of my University, I found a flat at the right price, paid for and keys in hand. And then, in desperate need of money, I found a R50 note right on the sidewalk in front of me. No matter what my situation, I seemed to find the right answers. 

This practice seemed truly amazing. I had boarded the Ship of Nam Myoho-renge-kyo, and I could now cross the "Sea of Suffering," just like Nichiren Daishonin's Gosho that inspired me. 

And I needed inspiration. Exams were coming, about 20 of them over a 30-day period, and I was also preparing to go overseas with a study tour, raising money through sponsorship. Initially there were 21 students who applied to go, but only six of us made it — and I raised the second highest amount of money! 

In the meantime, I still attended many Buddhist meetings. Often I would work until 2 or 3 a.m., then study. My job as a barman and waiter was about 20 Km away, and my only means of transport was a bicycle. On the way home in the early morning hours, cycling over an hour, I was usually exhausted and prayed just to be able to get home. I was still able to get up on time for early classes! I was chanting for absolutely everything, and my prayers were answered beyond my greatest expectations. 

Overall, my average grade was 67% and I got one distinction ("A" grade). The next year, I received a prize for being the most-improved student in the Faculty of Architecture. And I was able to take the three-month study trip to London and Paris. I really feel that it was because of my Buddhist practice that I was able to achieve everything. So much just fell into place for me. 

And too, it seemed that by his death, my friend Brett set in motion the circumstances that led me to True Buddhism. It was no coincidence that, one month after his death, I was introduced to chanting. I felt that he and I had such a close bond that I would be able to help him even after his death. In my heart, I felt as though he was my shakubuku, and during the silent prayers in Gongyo, I pray for him consistently. 

Now as YMD Chapter Leader for SGI-South Africa, I have vowed to continue to practice this Buddhism for the rest of my life. I really feel that my life was changed at a crucial juncture, and for that, I am eternally grateful. It is always during the hard times that I remember my experiences, and remember my vow to continue, no matter what. 

Martin Leigh